The birth of malls, which began locally in 1977 with White Oaks Mall, led to the decay of many urban and downtown shopping districts, including in the Springfield area. However, the rise of online retailers and the subsequent loss of anchor stores has flipped this dynamic.
Simon Property Group, which owns White Oaks Mall, is the largest shopping mall operator in the US. In 2018, the mall lost anchor stores Sears and Bergner’s as part of nationwide store closings. Both big box stores and specialty retailers around the country have continued to struggle in recent years, with a record 9,500 stores going out of business in 2019. However, Retail Dive predicted more than 15,000 stores will close permanently this year as chains are unable to recover from closures related to COVID-19.
In a recent Forbes article, author Sanford Stein wrote, “While Simon remains in arguably the best position to survive long term as a premium mall owner, doing so will take constant investment and reinvention. Besides the obvious shift away from pure stocking retail, there will be a greater focus on entertainment, restaurant, fitness and non-stocking, display-only retail environments” (“What does the future hold for malls?,” Feb. 21, 2020).
As our lifestyles and culture adapt to an increasingly online world, it is vital that our economy adapts as well. Part of this reimagining has been a focus on attracting locally owned businesses, even though consumers may not associate the mall with independent retailers.
Molly Berns, executive director of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, noted that any municipality that has a large mall which has struggled keeping long-term tenants would welcome the trend of diversifying malls. “Using that space for locally-owned business makes sense, particularly because we have strong support for local business here.”
Aaliyah Kissick of AK Boutique began her business out of her parents’ garage at age 16. With $50, a cellphone camera, a Facebook page and a bin of resale store clothing, she leveraged her love of thrifting and her fashionable style into a brick-and-mortar location in Athens, Illinois. At age 19, Kissick opened a second location in White Oaks Mall this past January with a team of five employees.
Kissick promotes her stated values of self-confidence, sisterhood and sustainability through her business model and her stores. Indeed, her love of the treasure hunt of thrift store shopping began when she was 11 years old and wore a 2x, which was not offered in stores for juniors. “It was the worst feeling,” she recalls, but her mother took her to Goodwill, where she was introduced to a new way of shopping. “I could find my own size and my sense of fashion.”
Of her experience of being a small business owner at White Oaks Mall, Kissick states, “The vibe here, the people are so nice. I’ve made friends with my store neighbors and with the mall walkers and the mom groups. They’re really excited to see locally owned stores in the mall.”
Kissick describes her style as Boho chic, and her store is a reflection of this. In addition to gently loved clothing, the curated collection at AK Boutique includes shoes, jewelry, purses and scarves.
The impact of the coronavirus involved a huge turnaround to Kissick’s business plan, having opened her White Oaks’ location only a few months before the mall closed to the public. But within a week, she had moved her inventory to her home in Athens and opened a store online. When the mall announced its reopening, she moved her inventory back to Springfield and was open in three days. Though the number of shoppers inside the store are limited, Kissick invites people who are ready to venture forth to AK Boutique, where there is always a treasure to be found, and often on sale.
Owned and operated by Dave and Pamela Winchester, the idea for Medusa’s Garden came from a stint in estate sales and the antique mall business. After noticing that concrete fixtures like outdoor statuary were extremely popular, the couple looked into buying wholesale concrete fixtures.
Dave Winchester says that his wife got the idea for opening a shop in White Oaks Mall after a shopping trip there, and a week later, they opened their doors. In addition to traditional, unique and whimsical statuary made in the US–including some in Illinois–the shop also features wind chimes.
While COVID-19 restrictions shuttered the mall in March, Medusa’s Garden was allowed to open back up in May in the parking lot near Texas Roadhouse because of its status as a garden center. However, traffic was down, even during what is traditionally the busiest few months of the year.
The Winchesters sought to open their business at the mall due to its ability to attract shoppers. Dave said, “The mall already has a customer base. The traffic at the mall is good for the small business owner.”
The Rainbow Room
The Rainbow Room is not a business, but a nonprofit creative art space and gallery. Founder Angie Tonucci says she chose to locate in the mall for the affordable rent. Located in a wing without an anchor store, Tonucci said, “People who come here come specifically for the Rainbow Room.”
This is part of the mall’s revitalization efforts, as Tonucci explains, “to attract small, locally owned businesses, community organizations and to provide activities. There are things for people to do and not just to shop.”
Tonucci was inspired to create the Rainbow Room to make art accessible to everyone. “There’s a lot of art downtown, but not a lot of local art on the west side. We fill that niche, while also providing affordable activities and classes for creative art exposure. We wanted to bring artists of color and LGBTQ+ artists to a traditionally conservative location. We wanted to create a space for a marginalized community to share work. As a queer feminist, I want to make sure everyone has a voice.”
The Rainbow Room is not currently open, and like many nonprofit organizations, is struggling due to the effects of COVID-19 restrictions. Their organizational model relies on large fundraising events to pay for their small, free or low-cost events for families and art classes. Since large fundraising events are not currently allowed due to restrictions on crowd sizes, Tonucci says the Rainbow Room is in dire need of volunteers, board members and donations of cash and art supplies to help weather the pandemic.
The Rainbow Room also offers a gallery, with space for artists of different media to collaborate, and Tonucci seeks ways to partner with her mall neighbors as well. A May fashion show in collaboration with AK Boutique was canceled when White Oaks Mall closed to the public, although Tonucci hopes that larger events will be possible again by fall.
Jazzd Up Boutique
Springfield native Precious Cannon moved her boutique to the mall nearly one year ago, both for a larger space and also to access the mall’s established foot traffic. Jazzd Up Boutique offers women’s apparel from small to 5X, as well as accessories. “We serve everyone!” she states proudly.
Cannon meets a lot of different people at the mall and appreciates all the friendliness she’s received. “People just pop in, even if what I offer is not what they wear. One mall walker stops to check in all the time. Once she told me, ‘You’re a life saver!’ and handed me a pack of Life Savers. It’s fun.”
Cannon is thankful for her location in the mall, saying, “Opening up a storefront in White Oaks Mall is great for businesses. You don’t have to tell people you’re here. People automatically come to the mall.”
The recent mall closure was hard for her business, and Cannon switched her focus to an online presence, acquiring new inventory and coming up with ideas to stand out to customers. Jazzd Up Boutique is now open again, although currently limited to three customers in the store. “Some people get frustrated because they don’t want to wait,” Cannon acknowledges. “It’s a big change, (but) I want myself and my customers to be safe.”
Carey Smith is a freelancer writer from Springfield who is fascinated by the dynamic evolution of capitalism in its adaptation to current reality.